It came as a great surprise that the Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, recently argued against the induction of women in combat, 26 years after the doors were opened for them to serve in the armed forces in a limited capacity. His argument is premised on the belief that a majority of our society is not prepared to see women in combat and deal with the consequences. The views expressed by him are often expressed in private by senior military officers, who want the armed forces to follow existing conservative societal norms.
How would they then explain that while religion remains a highly emotive socio-political issue in India driven by conservative tendencies, the approach of the armed forces is radically progressive, as exemplified by the multi-faith places of worship for soldiers? It is something the armed forces are justifiably proud of, showcasing it for others to emulate. The armed forces are truly at the vanguard of liberal and progressive thought on such a contentious issue, eschewing all temptation to fall prey to the calls of conservative societal norms.
Interestingly, the views of General Rawat’s counterparts in the Navy and the Air Force are at variance with that of the Army Chief. Both have publicly argued in favour of bringing women in combat. It is true that compared to the Army, these are much younger forces, smaller in size, and their operational roles allow them to induct women far more easily. However, it must not be forgotten that there has been a lot of resistance to the induction of women even within these two services. But the resistance was overcome by a strong leadership and by the way the work environment shaped up in the Navy and Air Force. The challenge is far greater in the Army because land combat has its origins in the Stone Age, has been traditionally a male profession and the biases and prejudices against women can be camouflaged under tradition and operational effectiveness. It is a vexed question with no easy answers.
The debate points to the nature of issues that the armed forces are trying to grapple with in today’s India. Inducting women in combat is just one of them; recent Supreme Court judgements decriminalising adultery and legalising consensual sexual acts, irrespective of gender, have also put the armed forces in a bind. These are revolutionary steps in the arena of gender rights. Even if the armed forces wish for an exemption from these rulings, it can only happen by an act of Parliament — a highly unlikely step, given the political cost for any party championing it.
Particularly vexed is the question of adultery — as framed when the military was an all-male institution. The issue is not merely about accepting liberal sexual mores or violating traditional family values but also about gender equality. The phrase “stealing the affection of a brother officer’s wife” doesn’t exist in any manual of military law but gained popular currency since it was used in the 1980s to provide media with reasons for disciplinary action against senior officers. It connotes ownership of a woman by the husband, where she cannot act of her free will. It is something hard to argue for in these times, but the dominant institutional view of the armed forces on the subject finds a huge resonance in conservative sections of our society.
In some ways, this is nothing new. Military culture has always had a conservative streak, which wants to revert to a glorious all-male past. It hankers for an insulated garrison status, fully self-contained as a group and increasingly distinct as a sub-culture. However, there cannot be, as Morris Janowitz memorably noted in 1974 about the US military, “a return to earlier forms of a highly self-contained and socially distinct military force; the requirements of technology of education and of political support make that impossible”. This is equally true of India now.
The armed forces are one of India’s most meritocratic institutions and one of its most respected professions. Undoubtedly, their job is not to fix the problems of the society. But they cannot afford to lag behind the society, or even just reflect the society they defend. They must lead the society, not politically but culturally. For, a growing gap between the military and progressive sections of society provides a political opening for those who wish to define nationalism, by equating uncritical reverence for the military to nationalism.
In India, we live in times when the military is highly revered by society but hardly understood by it. This mix of reverence and ignorance is a dangerous combination. It creates opportunity for a small segment of the polity to determine the “right” attitude towards the military, and extrapolate it to nationalism. Since no one wants to be perceived as being irreverent towards the military — and by extension, anti-national — those defining the terms of this debate wield significant political power. This discourse is already playing out during the debates on news channels on our television screens and on myriad social media platforms. It coarsens the quality of our democracy while causing damage to the long-standing image of the armed forces as a professional and apolitical institution.
This poses a huge democratic challenge, well beyond the domain of the military. The only way out is for the armed forces to consistently take progressive positions that are far ahead of the society at large. Institutions, by nature, are resistant to major changes and the militaries more so, particularly on gender issues. That has been the norm globally, but in each case, such resistance was eventually overcome. A modern India will not be able to choose any differently, minor hiccups notwithstanding.